Maybe not all students are suited to college



The new Central Applications Office (CAO) figures show that hundreds of extra college places have taken some of the heat out of the points race this year. The CAO has made a record 87,075 offers to 57,980, mainly school-leaver, applicants.

More places on offer is not the only positive move for those intending to go on to Third Level education. First year students in 2019/2020 were the first to be impacted by Covid-19 – most spending their first year at college studying in the box-room. Back then saw the largest non-progression rate recorded, that is those who dropped out after first year.

However, there is good news. Dr Alan Wall, CEO of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), says that progression rates now see a constant improvement across the higher education system. Latest figures show that the rate of third-level students dropping out of their courses has fallen yet again. New data last week from the HEA shows that just 9% of students do not progress beyond first year – down from 12% a year ago.

Prospective third-level students continue to be drawn towards education, law, and business courses, whereas the recent popularity of environmental studies seems to have waned slightly.

The numbers applying for college courses this autumn are broadly in line with last year. Since May, 46,886 applicants have changed their course choice, a reduction on the numbers applying to change courses in 2022.

As mentioned, environmental courses, which saw a boost in popularity in recent years, have seen first-preference applications decrease this year as have veterinary medicine, and nursing and midwifery, whereas these courses saw a boost in popularity throughout the pandemic. (There’s another story in that somewhere).

Meanwhile, while demand for teaching courses remains strong this year, primary school teaching has recorded 5% fewer first preferences – which does not augur well for our shortage of such teachers. On the other hand, secondary school teaching has seen a first-preference boost of 14% on 2022.

Pressure for points – despite more places available and fewer points needed – is still humongous. Our new quota of third level interns ain’t seen nothing yet. The financial burden, alone, on parents and students themselves – €22,000 to €40,000 over four years – is just one pressure point. The need to succeed another.

For those 9% who will drop out at the end of first year, dropping out comes at a cost. Aside from feelings of failure and regret, there is the finances. If a student opts to return to college, their grant entitlement is lost for the year they repeat. In addition, they may be liable for some, or all, of the tuition fees for that year, depending on the timing of their withdrawal.

All of which begs the question: are students who are not academically able, or just not ready, being propelled into higher education?

At 59%, Ireland has one of the highest proportions of young people in Europe going on to higher education. In contrast, there has been a dramatic fall-off in the numbers taking up apprenticeships or training, a pattern which began with the economic downturn and continues to this day.

Prof. John Hegarty of the Royal Irish Academy says many students are just not “suited” to college. Students totally unsuited to higher education are being “shoehorned” into universities by their parents, the “snob value” being higher than apprenticeships and training.

However, Dr Jim Murray, director of academic affairs at the Technological Higher Education Association, rejects any suggestion that they are taking on too many students. “I wouldn’t like to say to anyone that you shouldn’t go to higher education,” he says.

Agreed. A university education may well be the best legacy a society can bestow on its young but are we allowing many of our young students become victims of an illusion? Of a misplaced idealism of what really matters in life, that a degree guarantees you plain sailing through life?

In a changing world of out-sourcing, automation, emerging markets and empty pension funds, nothing is guaranteed any more. Certainly not a job for life.

University is not for everyone. As Mark Twain noted: “I never let schooling interfere with my education.” I would suggest those unsure of what the next step should be could do worse than take a year out to think things through. Dare I suggest they take the time out travelling the world, making new friends, getting a job at Happy Burger, adapting to grown- up responsibilities.

A year at the university of life.

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